Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a fairly common mental health concern among children and teenagers today. It is readily treated by medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. Here are some commonly asked questions teens have about ADHD, and their answers.
A: The letters ADD stand for “attention deficit disorder.” Having attention deficit disorder is like needing to wear glasses. It means you have trouble seeing life clearly. You have trouble paying attention. You may like to move around a lot, and this also makes it hard to pay attention to what is going on. Just as it can be annoying for people who wear glasses to have to put on their glasses, it can be annoying to have ADD. But there is nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t mean you are stupid or dumb. Not at all. In fact, lots of really smart kids have ADD, just as lots of really smart kids wear glasses.
A: No. Absolutely not. Lots of very smart people have ADD. The man who invented the light bulb, Thomas Edison, had ADD. He invented many other amazing things besides the light bulb. He’s the greatest inventor in American history.
A: No, he is not right. Having ADD has nothing to do with being smart or stupid. Many very smart people have ADD. Your mom or dad may have ADD. Your teacher may have ADD. The principal of your school may have ADD. Both people who wrote this book have ADD (and one of them has dyslexia, too). Your doctor may have ADD. So may a fireman or a police officer or the person who brings the mail or an airplane pilot or an astronaut. Anyone may have ADD.
Q: I have a friend who takes Ritalin and I don’t like him. If I take Ritalin, will I become just like him?
A: No. Ritalin will not change the basic way you already are. It’s like if you take an aspirin, you don’t necessarily become just like everyone else who has ever taken an aspirin. I’ll bet, in fact, that you and the friend you don’t like have both taken an aspirin at some time. The aspirin didn’t turn you into someone like him, did it? Neither will the Ritalin.
A: I don’t think you should have to take it. I think you and your mom and dad and your doctor should talk to each other until you reach some kind of agreement so nobody is doing anything against their will. Tell your mom the medicine will work better if you take it without being forced to.
But just because I don’t think you should have to take the medicine doesn’t mean I don’t think the medicine can’t help you. Lots of kids have been helped by medicine for ADD. It is very safe, and when it works, it really helps a lot.
A: When it works, the medicine helps you pay attention better than you can now. It helps you focus better, like a pair of eyeglasses. It can make it easier for you to pay attention in school and at home. It can make reading easier. It can make homework go better. It can make school less boring. It can make it easier to get along with your brother or sister, if you have one. It can help you remember things. This is the good the medicine does when it works. If it doesn’t work, you just stop taking it.
A: Sometimes, but the bad things are not very bad, and they go away as soon as you stop taking the medicine.
Sometimes the medicine takes away your appetite, so you have to be careful to eat plenty. Sometimes the medicine makes it hard to sleep, so you have to be sure not to take it too close to bedtime. Sometimes the medicine just makes you feel funny. If that happens, you simply stop taking it, and the funny feeling goes away.
Once in a great while (that means almost never), the medicine slows down your growth. This scares many kids. But they do not need to be scared. If the medicine slows your growth, you just stop taking the medicine and you grow as big as you would have grown if you’d never taken the medicine.
Most of the time the medicine does not do anything bad, and it does a lot that is good.
A: No, not at all. No more than taking an aspirin for a headache means you’re crazy.
Q: My friend says I should be able to do OK on my own without taking medicine and if I take medicine it means I’m a wimp. Is he right?
A: No. He is not right. I’ll bet he’s had shots to keep him from getting serious illnesses. Does that mean he’s a wimp to have had those shots? Of course not. And I’ll bet if your friend had blurry vision he’d wear glasses. That wouldn’t mean he was a wimp, just that he needed glasses. And it does not mean you are a wimp to get treatment for your ADD, anymore than wearing glasses means you’re a wimp or taking vitamins means you’re a wimp.
A: We don’t know. What your doctor will do is tell you to stop taking it once or twice a year to see if you still need it. Sometimes kids take it for years. Sometimes just for months. The only way to find out is to stop it now and then and see if you still need it.
A: It is a hard secret to keep. If you really want to, you probably can, with your parents’ help, but it will take a lot of work. Instead, why don’t you and your mom and dad figure out a way for you to tell your brother. I understand the problem is to figure out a way to tell him so he won’t tease you and use it against you and make you feel dumb. But I’ll bet your parents can help you with this. Life will be a lot easier if your brother knows. Believe it or not, he might even help you out.
A: No. That is not right. ADD does not mean you are weird any more than needing to wear glasses means you are weird.
Also, I’d be careful of that word “weird.” Lots of really nice people get called “weird” just because they are a little different from somebody else who doesn’t like them. Being called “weird” really hurts their feelings. Nobody likes being called “weird,” so why hurt people’s feelings?
A: Sometimes. And sometimes you think slower. It probably evens out in the long run. But it’s true that sometimes people with ADD think really fast. So fast they lose track of their own thoughts. It’s sort of like watching a train go by so fast that you can’t see the individual cars, just a blur.
A: It is usually better to take the medicine regularly than once in a while. If you find you want to take it sometimes, but don’t others, why don’t you talk to your parents or your doctor about it? Maybe you have some questions that need to be answered about the medicine. Or maybe the dose is wrong or the time you take it is wrong.
A: The answer is almost a definite no.
Ritalin, which is the main medicine we use to treat ADD, has been around for a long time. We have found it to be very safe. Can I tell you absolutely, 100 percent for sure, without a doubt, that there is no problem? No, I can’t. But pretty close.
Q: Why does the school nurse have to give me my medication instead of me taking it myself in school?
A: Because that is the school rule. Why is that the school rule? So you’ll remember to take the pill. So the school will know you took it, in case you forget whether you did or not. So you won’t lose it and some other kid pick it up and take it. So if you get sick the nurse will know what medicine you’re taking. These are all good reasons.
A: No. But it might make you get better grades because you might be able to pay attention better and do homework better. But the medicine won’t make you any smarter, just better able to use the brain you’ve got.
Reprinted with permission from the book, Answers to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John J. Ratey, M.D.